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Re-reading Crusade Literature: Where are the Armenians

Presented by Dr Tamar M. Boyadjian

Chaired by Leon Aslanov (Programme of Armenians Studies)

On Monday 3rd November 2014

“Most beloved brethren! Sad news has come from Jerusalem that the Turks and Arabs, an accursed and foreign race, enemies of God have invaded the lands of the Christians and have devastated them. Set out on this journey for God wills it, and you will obtain the admission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of Heaven.”

Boyadjian admitted that it wasn’t particularly original to open a lecture on the Crusades with this quote of Pope Urban II’s; most academic publications on the Crusades do exactly the same thing. What sets Boyadjian apart from most Crusade academics, however, is that she does not consider it the most useful departure point for a rounded, world-wide understanding of the Crusades.

European sources such as these seem to dominate academic knowledge on the Crusades. The resulting narrative is an antagonistic one: East vs. West; Christianity vs. Islam; Western Christianity vs. Eastern Christianity. This eurocentricity is a problem – not just for our understanding of the past, but because, as Sir Jack Goody phrases it in The Theft of History, it also ‘aggravates’ our future with the rest of the world.

Where do Armenian sources fit into the Crusades? If we were to believe mainstream academic writing, they simply don’t. The reasons behind this conspicuous absence are three-fold, according to Boyadjian. Firstly, scholars of the medieval period are sometimes simply unaware of sources in languages like Armenian. Then, when they are considered, they are often written off as somehow lacking in substance. Thirdly, those sources that make the cut are regularly stripped of their original context so that they fit more easily into an existing European narrative.

But Armenian sources, which have been a focus of Tamar Boyadjian’s research both during and after her doctorate at UCLA, have a lot to tell us about the Levant between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. She cites Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives as a good example of PROGRAMME OF ARMENIAN STUDIES how non-Western sources remain valuable in their original cultural context. Her mission tonight, at this lecture hosted by the Programme of Armenian Studies, is to cast a new light on Armenian literary and historiographical texts that have been neglected by academics for centuries.

The richness of the Armenian corpus is clear. Chronological histories from the Armenian Silver Age, such as those by Nerses Palients and Mkhitar Anetsi, weave together narratives of Armenian Celicia with the European crusaders. Literary works, such as the poetry and fables of Frig a century later, provide another reading of the period. Then there is the correspondence, unearthed by Boyadjian during recent work in the Vatican archives, that took place between the Roman Popes and the Armenian Catholicos Krikor Dghah.

It is by taking these works outside of the conventional crusading narrative and re-positioning them in an alternative framework that their true value comes to the fore. The framework which Boyadjian advocates is what she refers to as ‘the medieval Mediterranean’: a patchwork of various ethno-religious communities integrated by proximity and united by their fragmentation.

From her extensive survey of Armenian sources, Boyadjian selected one example to undergo this rereading: the Lamentation over the capture of Jerusalem, composed in 1189 by Krikor Dghah, who at the time was in touch with Pope Clement III about the planned Third Crusade. The lament, narrated by the city of Jerusalem in the first person, is often considered irrelevant to our understanding of the Crusades, or as being literarily inferior to other works from the time.

However, Boyadjian’s re-reading of the text highlights some very useful themes, such as how the sacred city was perceived in medieval times. Twenty lines into the poem, there is a geographic description of Jerusalem’s place in the world that reads just like a circular T-and-O map: Jerusalem at its centre, Asia from nine to three o’clock, Africa from three to six o’clock and Europe from six to nine o’clock, each divided by a body of water. Researchers who neglect to consult this valuable source would likewise struggle to understand the full extent to which King Levon I was propagated as an ally of Rome and a future saviour of Jerusalem.

One member of the audience proposed in the ensuing Q&A that the neglect of Armenian sources often boils down to a simple matter of inaccessibility. Boyadjian was quick to agree. Her dream, she said, is to produce expert translations of these texts. She hopes thereby not only to help expose Armenian, Byzantine, Arabic and other literary texts from the crusader period, but also reframe the lens through which scholars examine and re-represent the medieval period.

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